Interview with Louis Danziger Part 1

Aswin Sadha: To begin the interview, could you tell us a bit of your childhood? Why and who influenced you to pursue a career as a graphic designer?

Louis Danziger: I grew up in New York City during the depression and when I was about 11 or 12 years old I took some free art classes that were offered in our neighborhood. These classes were part of the Federal Art Project funded by the government in an effort to support the arts and artists during the depression years. I enjoyed the activity and loved the work that I produced in class. Somehow that got me particularly interested in lettering and I began to explore the library for books on the subject. I also took a Federal Art Project class in poster design and that enlarged my interest. In the process I came to believe that the Germans were doing the best work and so I began looking at Gebrauchsgraphik Magazine which was available at a local branch of the New York Public library monthly. Without realizing it, I was absorbing some of the best graphic design work of the time including much European work that was more modern and progressive than what was being produced in America. Consequently when I began to move into doing graphic design myself, I began with very high standards.


AS: After the military service in 1945, you had a chance to study under Alvin Lustig. Could you tell us what is the most significance lesson or exercise from Lustig?

LD: For me the significance of Alvin Lustig’s teachings was not in any specific design lessons though I’m sure there were many things he said which were important in one’s development and understanding. For example I remember him talking about how important what he referred to as “definition of intention” was, that is if you wanted something to be seen as precise it had to be very precise, if you intended for some thing to be organic it should clearly and unequivocally have that quality. He would talk about the use of scale, typographic niceties and many other things, but for me his importance was primarily inspirational. He was a charismatic teacher who made one feel that design was very important and well worth the intense commitment that is required to doing it well. He opened our eyes to the design world showing us work we had not seen before by great designers that were new to us. He was always bring in very interesting books that we were unaware of. He talked about painting, literature, music, architecture and film and made us aware of all the connections. He was inspiring. One wanted to be as intelligent as he was.


AS: A year after you took a class with Alexey Brodovitch for a year in New York, did you learn photography from Brodovitch?

LD: I did not learn anything about photography in that class or even subsequently from him other than what I learned from looking at his extraordinary photography in his books such as Ballet and others. He was a great teacher and what I got mostly from him was a sense of how important authenticity was. I think that was the highest value that he espoused and it had a very strong influence on me. Since he liked me and liked my work ( he was not much given to liking anything and was a hard one to please) it did a great deal for boosting my ego and my confidence. It came at a time in my career that I really needed that. 


AS: What was your first job ? 

LD: When I was in high school and majoring in art I would try to get a related job during my summer vacation. My first job, probably at age 15 was as an apprentice in the art department of a large lithographic printer, the United Litho Company in downtown New York’s lower east side. I was paid 7 dollars a week. I cleaned brushes, ran errands, clipped images from magazines for the illustrator’s scrap files. The art director and the illustrators would all show me how to do things, and would patiently explain what they were doing and why. I learned a lot. The following summer I worked in a silk-screen house that did major displays for firms like Park & Tilford and Florsheim Shoes, etc. Again, a useful learning experience. I got a very thorough grounding in production knowledge as a result of these early experiences


AS: In 1949, you began to open your own design studio in Los Angeles. Why did you pick Los Angeles?

LD: I chose to live and work in Los Angeles because of the weather. I always hated the winters growing up in New York and particularly after having spent several years in the South Pacific while in the army and coming home to New York in the winter was intolerable so I left for sunny California. I have never regretted the move.


AS: What is a typical day in your studio ?

LD: Generally since I mostly worked by myself with an occasional assistant my day was fairly unstructured and was shaped by the volume of work that I had or appointments I had made. I would usually start my day by making the necessary phone calls and that behind be I would begin working. I was a very efficient and productive worker and since I was pretty much doing everything by myself I did not have to spend time explaining things to others. I always had music playing while I worked, I would often, if work load allowed, just sit and read. No matter the pressure I seldom worked after 5pm. If necessary rather than work late hours I preferred to get up extra early like 4am and work in the early morning hours. It is amazing how productive one can be during those early hours, fresh from some sleep, no phone call interruptions and all is quiet.

When I did have meetings with clients outside of my studio I would try to make those lunch meetings. During my entire career I always taught school at least one day a week, generally on Fridays. 


AS: Less than 10 years after you have opened your studio, you went traveling to Europe. Why did you decide to take a year off and travel?

LD: It is hard to remember exactly why I decided to try and live in Europe. I think at the time, mid nineteen fifties, I probably did not like the consumerist culture at the time, the political climate was also quite reactionary although there was lots of good activity such as the civil rights movement, the counter culture of the beatniks and a whole new music scene going on. I think I felt somehow that I did not fit in. I was also very interested in Italian design and so thought I would try to live and work in Italy for a while and if I liked it perhaps to stay.


AS: Why are you very interested in Italian design? Where did you work in Italy?

LD: What I particularly liked about the Italian work, particularly the work of Max Huber and Carlo Vivarelli (both Swiss) at Studio Boggeri and Albe Steiner and others was their use of type and photo. It had all of the structure and discipline of the Swiss but much less rigid and occasionally quit playful. They seemed to relax the rules a bit and were often quite imaginative. The work had verve and a dynamic presence and particularly in the work of Albe Steiner there were often interesting concepts as well.

I worked for Studio Boggeri for a short period and started to work on the graphics for the Industrial Design section of the Milan Triennale being designed by the architect Alberto Rosselli.  I became ill and left Italy for Switzerland to be diagnosed and treated. That was the end of my working in Europe. We stayed there for several more months just traveling around and finally returned home were I resumed my design practice.


AS: What are the differences between working in USA and Italy?

LD: At that time in 1957 I found the major difference to be one of efficiency. In the United States I was accustomed to an electric pencil sharpener, pads of layout paper, specifying and sending out for type, ordering photostats, etc. I produced a great deal of work in a day. At Boggeri’s you sharpened your pencils with razor blades, used rolls of architect’s tracing paper for layouts. Most printing was done by letterpress so that you would paste down type cut from magazines for position and the printer would make up and compose the pages as you suggested. In the States we would make paste-ups using repro proofs, essentially composing the final piece rather than the printer- compositor. I would do in one day what it would take a week in Italy. I was very impatient with the pace at Studio Boggeri.


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